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Rush hour traffic including TTC vehicles on Spadina Avenue in Toronto on Nov. 29, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Rush hour traffic including TTC vehicles on Spadina Avenue in Toronto on Nov. 29, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Q&A

How do we fix Toronto transit? (Hint: it’s not just about building subways) Add to ...

What kind of city do you want, Toronto?

That’s the sort of deceptively simple question that transportation expert Jarrett Walker says has been lost in the squabbling over transit routes. And it’s urgent for a city struggling to keep moving in the coming decades.

Mr. Walker is the author of the book Human Transit and runs a blog of the same title. He will be appearing with Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat Thursday at St. Paul’s church on Bloor Street East, at an event hosted by the city’s planning department and the regional transit agency Metrolinx.

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Although the globe-trotting consultant is quick to caution against the “mono-modalists” who believe there is a single answer to traffic woes, he is firm that dense cities can’t function without proper transit. Mr. Walker spoke to The Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore last week from Columbus, Ohio.

You’re coming to Toronto, where transit planning is a political mess. What's your message?

You need to take a break from binary debates about whether or not to build a certain thing. It’s pretty clear that, especially recently, we’ve lost track of what we’re all trying to do here. So I’m going to be talking about, after you’ve built transit, what effect you want it to have on the city. And taking it back from that, what does a coherent network of all modes look like and, really only after that, okay, what we should build.

There’s almost a capitulation – people saying ‘just build something, anything.’

The downsides to building the wrong thing are not just that opponents of transit have evidence of waste, but also that you spent money serving a small number of people that could have been spent on serving a large number of people. And when I say serving I really mean liberating. In a city as dense as Toronto, transit needs to be an instrument of freedom. Transit needs to form a network that all fits together so you can get anywhere you’re going. One of the things I think is most [discouraging] about the Toronto conversation is that nobody seems to be talking about the interests of Toronto, it’s all about the interests of this neighbourhood against the interests of that neighbourhood. And that’s another thing I’m going to talk about quite a bit.

System maps are a transit feature to which you devote a lot of attention. What's your take on the new ones proposed by the TTC?

They’ve picked up one idea that I think is fundamental: if you’re not visually showing frequency you’re not showing the system. Transit isn’t useful unless it’s there both where and when you need it. So whenever my firm draws a map, for example, we draw different frequencies in different colours. The service that’s coming so frequently that there’s basically always a next one coming jumps out at you very, very prominently. The last draft of the [TTC] map I saw is sort of halfway there, they’re using kind of wider red lines for the frequent network. But I don’t understand why the whole map has to be red and I don’t understand why there have to be so many little footnotes. I’m constantly encouraging agencies to focus on simplicity.

The analogy I make is that maps that don’t signal frequency are basically like a highway map that doesn’t show the difference between a freeway and a gravel road. If you can’t see that this bus is coming every seven minutes and that bus is coming every 60 minutes, or once every Tuesday afternoon, you can’t really see the network at all. All you’re looking at is a bunch of lines on a map. I think that also affects the decisions that our [leaders] make, especially those that aren’t transit riders themselves.

In your book you talk about a future in which transit acts as a pedestrian accelerator. Can you explain?

Transit is at its most effective when it delivers you much, much faster than you can walk into a place where you are welcomed as a pedestrian. Right now we have a bit of a conflict with the current trends in urban design. When we run transit on the surface, the urban designers want us all to be very slow. The challenge, though, is that you have to deliver a reasonable travel time. If we’re only going a little faster than walking, people might as well walk. And that’s not a very efficient way of serving people or attracting them. For transit to really succeed, it’s got to be way faster than walking, not just be twice as fast as walking, which is kind of what you’ve achieved with your mixed-traffic streetcars. And that’s where I differ with a great deal of the current conventional wisdom in the urban design profession, which tends to be very obsessed with slowing transit down and which tends to romanticize things like Queen Street or King Street.

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